Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Lives of Others

I'm listening, as is my habit, to NPR as I sit with my glass of grape and write a post.  I'm hearing interviews by brave journalists in Libya, which sound similar yet much more alarming than those several weeks ago from Egypt.  The people with whom these journalists are speaking are even more brave.

I remember when the tide turned in Europe, seeing the jubilant Berliners dancing on the crumbling wall, the Velvet Revolution in Prague.  This only a couple of years after a serious man with Elvis Costello glasses and a black turtleneck spoke to my American politics class in 1987.  He told us things were changing, and we were transfixed by this person from what then was a vast unknown place.  I remember a woman in another of my classes saying, "I don't know much about the Eastern Bloc, although my brother did spend some time behind the Iron Curtain." Now, twenty years later, I don't think she was showing off, but at the time she seemed impossibly sophisticated to me.  At any rate, at the time it seemed that things would never change, at least to me.

In the movie The Lives of Others, the characters are terribly careful with one another, and not in a kind way.  They take painfully incredible care about what they say, even within the walls of their own homes, with good reason, since the walls do have ears. As audience members, we know the punchline of the drama that takes place in East Berlin: the regime, rotten to the core, will fall. This makes it only a little more bearable to watch characters live in fear that their neighbors, their co-workers, even their lovers, will betray them.  As I watched it--possibly the best film I have ever seen--I wondered yet again if I would have had the courage to stand up. 

I've always said that great men make awful husbands, knowing  I've internalized my father's warning: "Don't turn into a do-gooder."  This means, in my family, people who wear their hearts on their sleeves, people who simply aren't sensible.  But life in Canada (and my adopted home, the United States) means while there may be cause for outrage, one can march in the streets without fearing for one's life.  So even if my dad rolls his eyes, we can still do it.  No small thing.

The people in Tripoli and Cairo may not be sensible, but their resolve awes me.  I also remember Tiananmen Square and how the uprising there was crushed.  So, what would I do?  My nature is to survive and take care of myself and those I love. But I doubt I could stand up. I have friends who I am certain, if placed there, would have been in the French Resistance, and yet I can only imagine ingratiating myself with a well-placed Nazi general and checking on the cyanide capsule in the heel of my shoe. 

I don't feel good about this, but hope that my recognition of it at least means I am experiencing empathy for these people who want better lives for themselves and their families.  Maybe the stomach-churning agony I felt when watching The Lives of Others would kick in if in a future life I am placed in a place where I have no freedom to say what I wish.  Maybe I would be brave enough to camp out in a city square or report on those people with the guts to stand up.  I hope so.  In the meantime, I pray those fighting now win their right to speak their minds and live their lives, and know I am incredibly fortunate not to have to make such a choice.

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